"Hollywood is undergoing is biggest testosterone drain since Charlton Heston sacrificed himself for the good of mankind at the end of Earthquake. Everywhere you look, beefcakes are packing up their nautiluses and being shown the door. The careers of Vin Deisel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson have sputtered and died. Mad Max is out to lunch. Nobody seems able to sit still long enough to play the Hulk. Instead, cinema screens are flocked with svelte, low-cal metrosexual types like Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey jr and Matt Damon — buff but not ripped, more inclined to hang to window-ledges by their fingertips, than, say, to detonate the building with a improvised explosive device down its lift shaft. The superhero movie has now mutated, not without some ingenuity, into a species of wish-fulfilment comedy in which willowy uber-nerds like Jay Baruchel (The Sorcereor’s Apprentice) and Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim versus the World) discover they are blessed with superpowers, or second cousins to some lesser-known Greek Deity, to be tutored in their own awesomeness by Nicholas Cage so as to defeat the forces of evil in time to hand in their math homework. I don’t seem to remember Bruce Willis having the same problem.
Partly it’s down to the economics of movie industry, as ever-shrinking audiences skew the studio’s sights ever younger, towards the boyish and Ephronlike. If you thought the first Spiderman a little wet behind the ears, try the new one, British actor Andrew Garfield, a boy so slim Christopher Reeve could have used him as a toothpick. But it also echoes wide economic anxieties; as Reihan Salam argued recently in an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled ‘The Death of Macho’, today's Great Recession has not only done away with "the macho men's club called finance capitalism," but, with 28 million men out of work worldwide, has also resulted in "a collective crisis for millions of working men across the globe.” Hang on to your cigars, boys. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
America is having a meek moment. After eight years of a cowboy president who strutted the decks of aircraft carriers, firing off one-liners like a first timer at a tough-guy convention — “bring ‘em on”, “dead or alive” — America now has a skinny guy in charge, the skinniest since Lincoln, one who spent much of his campaign reassuring everyone, “I may be skinny but I’m tough.” It could easily be the motto of the new breed of screen heroes as they leap, spin, run and swing across the screen. Even Predators, the original oily-pecs-in-the-jungle franchise, got rebooted this summer with Hollywood’s leading string bean, Adrian Brody, in the starring role. “If you’re asking me to believe that Adrien Brody can beat up a Predator with his bare hands, then sir, you have gone too far,” spluttered one blogger.
These things are cyclical. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, movie audiences turned from the outsized heroism of Charlton Heston and John Wayne to scrappy underdogs like Luke Skywalker (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”) and Richard Dreyfuss’s rich kid oceanographer in Jaws, scoring points off the bare-chested heroism of the shark-killer Quint — the first summer blockbuster populated with cowards and hydrophobics, nervously checking their appendectomy scars. Spielberg, who once described himself as “a wimp in a field of jocks,” told his actors, “I don’t want the audience to believe you could ever kill that shark.” As the Reaganite eighties boomed, so too did the biceps of its movie heroes. ”The mind is the greatest weapon” insisted John Rambo, before strapping some beefy rocket launchers to his forearms, in case his mind wandered. In the original script of The Terminator, the title character was originally supposed to be a lean assassin: buzz cut, upturned trenchcoat, capable of disappearing into a crowd. James Cameron had been thinking: Jurgen Prochnaw. What he got was 220 pounds of Austrian bodybuilder, who could no more disappear into a crowd than he could perform a pas de deux. “He fills the space, and you have to go with that,” shrugged Cameron.
It was quite a reign they had, these slabs of sirloin, from the first Rambo film, First Blood, in 1982, through Lethal Weapon (1987), DieHard (1989), and the appropriately named Last Action Hero (1992), although if you had to date the exact moment when these behemoths began their long trundle to the rust-heap, you would probably pick the year earlier, 1991, which marked the appearance of the computer-generated T-1000 Terminator in Cameron’s Terminator 2. A Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer tank, the T-1000 was composed of a liquid alloy which allows it to morph its shape at will, defeating Arnie’s might not exponentially but a-symmetrically, using his own weight against him. It was like trying to punch an ocean, and it portended a whole new world, ruled by bendy new rules of the world favoring maneuvrability over mass, and athleticism over brute force.
As The New Yorker’s David Denby wrote in his review of X-Men:—“Gravity has given up its remorseless pull; one person’s flesh can turn into another’s, or melt, of become waxy, claylike, or metallic; the ground is not so much terra firma as a launching pad for the true cinematic space, the air, where bodies zoom like projectiles and actual projectiles (bullets say) sometimes move slowly enough to be inspected by the naked eye. Roll over Newton, computer imagery has altered the integrity of time and space.When Willis wrapped a firehouse around his torso and leapt over the edge of Nakatomi building in the first Die Hard, he was obeying observable physical laws of cause and effect; maybe not to the strictest letter of the law — how did he know he would swing in through a plate glass window and not go splat into the side of the building? — but the law in its spirit and intention. When Keanu Reeves slows down space-time and neatly sidesteps a bullet in The Matrix, on the other hand, all bets are off.
So, too, are the body-mass ratios of our heroes. This brave, new post-Newtonian universe belongs not to the bulky and beefy but the slim and speedy — to fast metabolisers like Reeves or Matt Damon, burning off the calories in The Bourne Ultimatum; or Angelina Jolie, running up the corridor walls in Salt; or Leonardo di Caprio and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt negotiating the hairpin bends of Inception, a film whose exposition levels alone render it a no-fly zone to monosyllabic grunters like Sly and Arnie. Can you imagine Schwarznegger, whose eloquence stretched to a terse “screw you!” before driving a power-drill into a man’s chest, wrapping his tonsils around the reams of pseudo-scientific gobbledy-gook spouted by di Caprio in Nolan’s brain-teaser? In fairness, many films of Schwarzenegger’s film did toy with the idea that he might be a fictional construct — “You’re whole life has been a dream,” he was told in Total Recall — but his response to that, as to all things, was to shoot them in the kneecaps. Such butchery now bores us. Like Pentagon drone operators, we prefer our kills ‘clean’."